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Maieutics is the common form of the from the ancient Greek -derived metaphorical expression maieutics ( μαιευτική maieutikḗ [téchnē] " midwife art "). The word describes a procedure in dialogue that can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Socrates . Socrates, whose mother was a maia (midwife), is said to have compared his conversational technique with obstetrics. What is meant is that you help a person to gain knowledge by asking suitable questions to ask them to find out the facts in question for themselves. Thus insight is born with the help of the midwife - the learning helper - the learner in this picture is the woman giving birth. In contrast to this, lessons are formed in which the teacher teaches the material to the students.

From the 18th century on, the basic idea was picked up on various occasions and, in a modified form, made the starting point for the development of new concepts for conveying insights.

The Maeutics of Socrates

Plato's representation

In a series of his literary dialogues, Socrates' pupil Plato points to an art of directing conversation to promote knowledge, which his teacher practiced. He lets Socrates appear as the main speaker in the dialogues and demonstrate the maeutic approach in dealing with individual problems and interlocutors.

In modern literature on the history of philosophy, the form of philosophical discourse traced back to Socrates is referred to as the “ Socratic method ” and the conveying of philosophical insight in this way is referred to as “Maieutik”.

In Plato's dialogue Theaetetus , Socrates compares his approach with the work of his mother, a midwife. May he help souls in the birth of their insights as the midwife helps women in the birth of their children. Socrates explains to his interlocutor, the mathematician Theaetetus , who has been searching in vain for the definition of “knowledge” for a long time, that he - Theaetetus - is, as it were, “pregnant” and suffers from childbirth pains. Midwifery is now required so that knowledge (the answer to the question of what knowledge is) can be produced (“born”). Just as a midwife, who can no longer give birth herself, assists others with childbirth, so he proceeds, Socrates: he himself does not give birth to wisdom, but only helps others to produce their knowledge. He never teaches his disciples, but he enables those who try hard to make rapid progress. With obstetrics, he enables her to discover and hold onto many beautiful things in herself.

The midwifery that Socrates provides consists in his technique of asking targeted questions. With it he gets his interlocutors to see through existing erroneous ideas and to give up. This often leads to a feeling of perplexity ( aporia ). As the conversation progresses, however, they come up with new ideas. These are in turn checked for consistency using the questioning technique. Ultimately, the maeutic interviewee succeeds in either discovering the actual facts himself or at least getting closer to the truth. This help in searching and finding knowledge, whereby instruction is consistently dispensed with, appears in Plato's presentation as a specifically Socratic alternative to conventional knowledge transfer by passing on and practicing teaching material.

According to Socrates' presentation in Theaetetus, midwifery is not limited to helping the pupil to give birth to his solutions to philosophical problems. Some things that are born of the students are misshapen, that is, the supposed problem solving is unsuitable. The experienced obstetrician recognizes this and relentlessly ensures that the unusable is thrown away. With this, Socrates often incurs the anger of the students because they do not understand that this is only for their own good.

In conversation with Theaetetus, Socrates pursues the analogy between his maieutics and midwifery. A midwife can tell whether there is a pregnancy at all; it can hasten or delay labor or induce an abortion. She is also ideal as a matchmaker. The spiritual obstetrician Socrates has such competence in an analogous way. He mediates "marriage" by sending those eager to learn to suitable teachers if he sees that they are not suitable for his maeutic art. He makes such decisions on the basis of his ability to assess which souls are able to produce valuable knowledge and which are not really pregnant or can only give birth to unfit people. Based on this assessment, he selects those whom he will provide obstetrics; he sends the others away.

Socrates points out in Theaetetus that midwives are mothers themselves and therefore have their own experience with the birth process, which is also necessary for their profession. On the other hand, he was sterile throughout his life and was not allowed to give birth to knowledge. Nevertheless, he can act as a midwife and help others to have their births. This is the paradox of Socratic ignorance that is often discussed in research : Socrates ascertains his own ignorance and at the same time claims to be able to help others in their search for knowledge. The most likely explanation for this is that when Socrates speaks of his own sterility and ignorance, he is thinking of an irrefutable knowledge in the sense of a knowledge of truth based on compelling evidence. For him, only such knowledge that he does not have would be satisfactory, but he has not been able to give birth to it, and he does not know anyone who has it either. By the births that he helps others to achieve, he only means results which he considers to be well founded and correct, but whose correctness he cannot prove. While these results are valuable, they do not represent knowledge in the strict sense.

The question of historical reality

From an ancient scholarly point of view, almost everything that has been handed down about the “Socratic method” and Maeutics appears to be problematic and controversial. Since Socrates left no writings, the maeutics is only known from Plato's statements and a presumed allusion in Aristophanes . The question of the relationship between the literary “Platonic” (appearing in Plato's dialogues) Socrates and Socrates as a historical personality is one of the most difficult problems in the history of ancient philosophy. A term like “Socratic method” - based on the historical Socrates - can only be meaningful if one trusts Plato with a reasonably realistic representation. Skeptical researchers limit themselves to the observation that Plato, as a writer, ascribes a certain superior type of conversation to his teacher, whom he puts in the best light as a master of dialogue.

Not only the existence of a “method” of historical Socrates is controversial, but also the question of whether historical Socrates understood and called his dialogue practice the art of midwifery or whether the comparison with obstetrics was an idea of ​​Plato. Some evidence suggests that the historical Socrates actually compared his assistance in philosophical research with the work of a midwife and summarized his understanding of imparting knowledge in this metaphor. However, there are also weighty counter arguments. The fact that the comedy poet Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates, apparently alludes to the obstetrics metaphor in his comedy “ The Clouds ” speaks for the historicity . Aristophanes lets a student of Socrates, who is interrupted while thinking, accuse the interferer of having caused the interruption to miscarry a knowledge. One problem, however, is that the Platonic Socrates stated in Theaetetus that maeutics was at that time - in the year of his death in 399 BC. BC - was still unknown to the public. If this is historically correct, there is an allusion in 423 BC. Chr. Listed comedy makes no sense.

Modern reception


In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne dealt with the approach of the Platonic Socrates, but did not attribute him to his own maeutic method. It was not until the 18th century that the idea of ​​midwifery was rediscovered and gained great popularity. Socratic philosophizing ("Sokratik") was now equated in wide circles with Maeutics.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) held Socrates in great esteem and dealt intensively with maeutics. He regarded the appropriate handling of the subject of love and the correct behavior in the Christian love practice as maeutic. In his treatise Works of Love , he described his concept of an indirect approach to communicating on the subject of love and an absolute selflessness in performing works of love. He thought they were works of God; the loving person should be aware that he is only assigned a maeutic role and should behave accordingly.

The Göttingen philosopher Leonard Nelson (1882–1927) developed the principles of a joint philosophical endeavor to gain knowledge, which he described as Socratic conversation . Initially, the Socratic conversation was only intended for teaching philosophy at universities. Nelson characterized it as the art of teaching philosophy rather than philosophy, not teaching about philosophers, but turning students into philosophers. In 1922 he gave the lecture The Socratic Method , in which he presented his understanding of dialogue. This lecture was not published posthumously until 1929. Following up on Socrates' approach, Nelson took the view that the influence of the teacher's (facilitator's) judgments on the student had to be eliminated so that the student could come to his own judgment without prejudice. Nelson's student Gustav Heckmann (1898–1996) continued the development of the method. The Socratic conversation after Nelson and Heckmann continues to be practiced, especially in adult education. This also includes maeutics. A key difference to Socrates' maeutics, however, is that Nelson does not have dialogues in which one person provides help to another, but rather a group discussion. The interviewer does not speak to the matter himself, but only takes on the role of midwife.

Even in a more recent, further developed variant of the Socratic conversation in the tradition of Nelson and Heckmann, the midwife role usually falls to the moderator, but in today's practice it is fundamentally possible for each sufficiently experienced participant to take on this role for another. The aim is to remove the asymmetry of roles.

In the context of his criticism of logocentrism , the post-structuralist Roland Barthes also turns against Socratic maeutics; he sees in the approach of Socrates the endeavor "to drive the other to the utmost shame: to contradict himself".


In the 18th century (from 1735) the Socratic conversation became the model for a teaching method called erotematics ("questioning art"). Erotematics was used in religious education and dominated the catechetics of both denominations in the German-speaking area until the early 19th century . Especially in the evangelical area she had many followers who fervently stood up for her. A leading exponent of this trend was the evangelical theologian Johann Friedrich Christoph Graeffe , who published the influential book The Socratic Society according to its original nature from a catechetical point of view . The evangelical theologians Karl Friedrich Bahrdt , Johann Lorenz Mosheim , Gustav Friedrich Dinter and Johann Georg Sulzer also advocated maieutics. It has been propagated in numerous papers. On the Catholic side, Franz Michael Vierthaler and Bernhard Galura were well-known representatives of maieutics. It was believed that the beliefs conveyed in religious education were laid out in the sense of a natural theology in humans and could be elicited from them through skillful questions. Even Johann Georg Hamann followed up on in his remarks, which he wanted to lead to Christianity, to the Socratic midwifery.

In the Age of Enlightenment, maeutics was also very well received outside theological circles , among others with Moses Mendelssohn , Lessing and Wieland as well as with the pedagogue Ernst Christian Trapp . Immanuel Kant recommended the "dialogical type of teaching" for the didactics of ethics. According to his description, it consists in the teacher asking what he wants to teach his disciples , referring to the reason of the students. According to Kant, this can only be done in a dialogue, in which teacher and pupil ask and answer one another . The teacher guides the pupil's train of thought through questions, merely developing the disposition to certain concepts in the same through presented cases (he is the midwife of his thoughts). The student in turn helps the teacher to improve the questioning technique through his counter-questions.

Not only theological and philosophical material was conveyed in a “Socratic” way; Mathematical and social questions were now also dealt with in “Socratic conversations”. In the second half of the 18th century, the word "Maieutik" was coined as a foreign German word.

An essential difference between the questioning art of Platonic Socrates and the pedagogical maieutics of the 18th and 19th centuries is that the negative approach of Socrates was turned into its opposite. Socrates had his interlocutors present their views and then refuted them. Modern educators, on the other hand, tried to elicit positive statements from the student that corresponded to what they themselves believed to be true.

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi was a critic of maeutics in religious education . He thought the mixing of Socratics and catechesis was absurd. In addition, "Socratizing" is impossible for children because they lack the necessary prior knowledge. They have wrongly dreamed of miracles. Even Johann Gottlieb cheat assessed the widespread enthusiasm of educators for maieutics skeptical. He made fun of it in his satirical novel Goatee (1779).

In 1845 the mathematician Karl Weierstraß published an essay on the Socratic teaching method and its applicability in school teaching . He said the method was excellent in and of itself, but could only be used to a limited extent in schools. It is unsuitable for natural science subjects, and it is out of the question for most of the high school classes. Its field of application is the philosophical sciences, pure mathematics and the theory of the general laws of language. It helps the pupil to gain knowledge whose source is directly in the disposition of human nature.

The frequently practiced questioning and developing teaching method is viewed by its representatives as a further development of Socrates' maeutics. In more recent didactics, it is judged critically because of the strong control of the learning processes by the teacher, who does not allow the learners to initiate enough.

In a timely development, the Socratic maieutics is practiced today as a method of discovery and multi-dimensional learning in many teaching and learning areas, such as traffic education : The teacher picks up the child in his experience and experience horizon and encourages him to own with appropriate impulses and questions Knowledge and self-determined action. In a modification and expansion of a motto of Montessori education , the " traffic education from the child " works under the didactic objective "Help me to discover the environment myself and to act independently". In this way, the children develop forms of traffic in accordance with their thinking, based on their own understanding and challenged own considerations, such as compatible interaction with one another, the use of traffic space as a partnership, the design of appropriate forms of communication, the design of clear traffic signs or accepted traffic sanctions.

The publicist Stefan Lindl has developed a “representation analytical Maieutik”, which is supposed to bring to light hidden skills and competencies in conversation.

Behavior therapy

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational-emotional behavioral therapy (REVT), a technique is used that is linked to the Socratic approach. It is assumed that irrational basic assumptions of the client can be the cause of his mental disorder. With the help of the conversation technique (“Socratic dialogue”) the therapist tries to identify these basic assumptions and to change them step by step.


In health care and nursing , Mäeutik means “experience-oriented care”, which is based on a concept that comes from the Dutch Instituut voor Maieutische Ontwikkeling in de Zorgpraktijk (IMOZ). The nursing mäeutik was developed in the Netherlands by Cora van der Kooij in the 1990s, especially for the care of people with dementia . Its aim is to underpin intuitive nursing action with terms and an integrating theory. The aim is to make people aware of intuitive knowledge or experience. In order to apply this concept, special training is required for the staff who work in nursing homes and hospices as well as in institutions for the care of the mentally handicapped and demented.

The nursing staff assumes that there are two worlds of experience: that of the residents and that of the carers. The emotional interaction between carers and residents should be understood and influenced in a desirable way. Cora van der Kooij refers to the idea of ​​"obstetrics" of the Platonic Socrates. She wants to provide “obstetrics” for the nursing staff to become aware. Courses are intended to teach nurses the ability to better cope with the stresses of their everyday work.

See also


Ancient Maeutics

Modern philosophy and didactics

  • Dieter Birnbacher , Dieter Krohn: The Socratic Conversation. Reclam, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-15-018230-1 .
  • Patrick Bühler: Negative pedagogy. Socrates and the history of learning . Schöningh, Paderborn 2012, ISBN 978-3-506-77213-8 (with extensive bibliography)
  • Michael Hanke: The Maieutic dialogue. Communication studies on the structure and applicability of a model . Rader, Aachen 1986, ISBN 3-922868-26-6 .
  • Gustav Heckmann: The Socratic Conversation. With an updated foreword by Dieter Krohn. 3rd edition, Lit, Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-643-13437-0
  • Detlef Horster : The Socratic Conversation in Theory and Practice. Leske & Budrich, Opladen 1994, ISBN 3-8100-1152-5 .
  • Gisela Raupach-Strey: Socratic didactics. The didactic significance of the Socratic method in the tradition of Leonard Nelson and Gustav Heckmann . Lit, Münster 2002, ISBN 3-8258-6322-0 , pp. 53–57 (chapter Die Maieutik )
  • Klaus-Rüdiger Wöhrmann: About a structural difference between the Maeutics of Socrates and the Socratic conversation according to Leonard Nelson. In: Detlef Horster, Dieter Krohn (ed.): Vernunft, Ethik, Politik. Gustav Heckmann on his 85th birthday . SOAK, Hannover 1983, pp. 289-300.


  • Harlich H. Stavemann: Socratic conversation in therapy and counseling . 3rd, revised edition, Beltz, Weinheim 2015, ISBN 978-3-621-27929-1


  • Christina Hallwirth-Spörk, Andreas Heller, Karin Weiler (eds.): Hospice culture and masculinity. Be open to life and death . Lambertus-Verlag, Freiburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-7841-1879-6 .
  • Ulrich Schindler (Ed.): Experience the care of people with dementia in a new way. Maeutics in everyday care. Vincentz, Hannover 2003, ISBN 3-87870-300-7

Web links

Wiktionary: Maeutics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. Plato, Theaetetus 148e-151d. See Theaitetos 161e, where the term maieutike techne is used.
  2. Plato, Theaitetos 148e-149c, 150b-d.
  3. Michael Erler : The meaning of the aporias in Plato's dialogues , Berlin 1987, pp. 60–70; Michael Erler: Maieutik. In: Christian Schäfer (Ed.): Platon-Lexikon , Darmstadt 2007, p. 193f.
  4. Plato, Theaetetos 150b – 151d.
  5. Plato, Theaetetus 150b-151b.
  6. Plato, Theaitetus 149b – c, 150c – d.
  7. See on this distinction Klaus Döring : Socrates, the Socratics and the traditions established by them . In: Hellmut Flashar (ed.): Sophistik, Sokrates, Sokratik, Mathematik, Medizin ( Outline of the history of philosophy . The philosophy of antiquity , Volume 2/1), Basel 1998, pp. 139–364, here: 159f., 164.
  8. Aristophanes, The Clouds 135-140.
  9. Louis-André Dorion: The Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem provides an overview of the history of research on the question of the historical Socrates . In: Donald R. Morrison (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Socrates , Cambridge 2011, pp. 1–23. See also Debra Nails: Agora, Academy, and the Conduct of Philosophy , Dordrecht 1995, pp. 8–31.
  10. Bruno Vancamp: L'historicité de la maïeutique socratique: réflexions critiques. In: L'Antiquité Classique 61, 1992, pp. 111-118 and Julius Tomin: Socratic Midwifery. In: The Classical Quarterly 37, 1987, pp. 97-102.
  11. ^ Richard Robinson : Plato's Earlier Dialectic , 2nd edition. Oxford 1953, pp. 83f., Kenneth Dover : Socrates in the Clouds . In: Gregory Vlastos (ed.): The Philosophy of Socrates , Garden City (NY) 1971, pp. 50-77, here: 61f., Myles F. Burnyeat: Socratic Midwifery, Platonic Inspiration. In: Hugh H. Benson (Ed.): Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates , New York 1992, pp. 53-65; Thomas Alexander Szlezák : Plato and the written form of philosophy , part 2: The image of the dialectician in Plato's late dialogues , Berlin 2004, pp. 91–127, especially pp. 91–98.
  12. Aristophanes, The Clouds 135-137. See Julius Tomin: Socratic Midwifery. In: The Classical Quarterly 37, 1987, pp. 97-102, here: 99; David Sider: Did Socrates call himself a midwife? The evidence of the clouds. In: Konstantinos J. Boudouris (ed.): The Philosophy of Socrates , Athens 1991, pp. 333–338. The usability of this source, however, denies Harold Tarrant: Midwifery and the Clouds. In: The Classical Quarterly, 38, 1988, pp. 116-122.
  13. ^ Plato, Theaetetus 149a.
  14. ^ Patrick Bühler: Negative Pedagogy. Paderborn 2012, p. 26.
  15. See Paul Müller: Kierkegaard's "Works of Love". Christian Ethics and the Maieutic Ideal. Copenhagen 1993, pp. 41-44, 51, 58-61.
  16. Detlef Horster: The Socratic Conversation in Theory and Practice. Opladen 1994, p. 26.
  17. Klaus-Rüdiger Wöhrmann: About a structural difference between the Maeutics of Socrates and the Socratic conversation after Leonard Nelson. In: Detlef Horster, Dieter Krohn (ed.): Vernunft, Ethik, Politik. Gustav Heckmann on his 85th birthday , Hanover 1983, pp. 289-300.
  18. For a more advanced practice see Gisela Raupach-Strey: Sokratische Didaktik. Münster 2002, pp. 53-57.
  19. ^ Roland Barthes: Die Lust am Text , Frankfurt am Main 1974, p. 8.
  20. Tim Hagemann: Maieutik B.III. In: Gert Ueding (Ed.): Historical Dictionary of Rhetoric , Volume 5, Tübingen 2001, Sp. 733–736, here: 733f.
  21. Immanuel Kant: The Metaphysics of Morals . In: Kant's collected writings (Academy edition), Volume 6, Berlin 1907, p. 478.
  22. Examples are given by Benno Böhm: Socrates in the eighteenth century. 2nd Edition. Neumünster 1966, p. 134, note 2.
  23. Helmut Meinhardt: Maieutik II . In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Volume 5, Basel 1980, Sp. 638.
  24. See also Patrick Bühler: Negative Pedagogy. Paderborn 2012, pp. 48–53.
  25. ^ Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: How Gertrud teaches her children. In: Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: Complete Works , Volume 13, Berlin 1932, pp. 181–389, here: 215f.
  26. ^ Patrick Bühler: Negative Pedagogy. Paderborn 2012, pp. 45f., 107.
  27. ^ Karl Weierstrass: About the Socratic teaching method and its applicability in school lessons. In: Karl Weierstrass: Mathematical Works , Volume 3: Abhandlungen III , Berlin 1903, pp. 315–329.
  28. ^ Siegbert A. Warwitz : The "Karlsruhe Model" of traffic education. In: Siegbert A. Warwitz: Traffic education from the child. Perceiving - Playing - Thinking - Acting , 6th edition, Baltmannsweiler 2009, pp. 1–3.
  29. ^ Siegbert A. Warwitz: Traffic education from the child. Perceiving - playing - thinking - acting , 6th edition, Baltmannsweiler 2009, pp. 50–75.
  30. ^ Stefan Lindl: Gestalten des Gestalten , 3 volumes, Vienna 2005–2008.
  31. Harlich H. Stavemann: Socratic conversation in therapy and counseling . 3rd, revised edition, Weinheim 2015.
  32. Ulrich Schindler (Ed.): Re-experience the care of people with dementia. Mäeutics in everyday care , Hannover 2003, p. 21.